Dave Harris in 2009, Victoria BC

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Fotdellas


There are a few misconceptions and questions concerning this unique instrument and this blog will hopefully lay most of them to rest. In my research on one man bands, for the book I'm writing, I have been shocked to find there are only three artists that have this strange foot operated bass instrument. There may possibly be more but not so far as I've found. Of course, the first was by its inventor, the late great one man band, Jesse Fuller. The other two artists are Robert 'One Man" Johnson and myself. Each of us has variations in ours but the basic principles are the same.
Fotdella or actually footdella, as it is pronounced, according to blues/folk artist Jesse Cahn. Jesse Cahn was a family friend of Fuller's, as a boy. His parents, folk/blues/jazz artists, Rolf Cahn and Barbara Dane were early supporters of Jesse's, hiring him to play in their clubs and having him over to their house. So, while generally spelled fotdella, it is pronounced footdella. The name was coined by Jesse's wife, Gertrude; fot from foot and della from killer-diller, an old expression used by jazz musicians for something hip or cool. So, a hot foot, which Jesse had, nimbly playing ragtime bass lines with his right foot, high-hat cymbals with his left, while playing deft Piedmont blues inspired 12 string guitar, harp or kazoo, and singing.
There has been speculation that the instrument was a converted upright bass but in fact, Jesse bent the wood himself, to create the instruments body. Jesse had worked for a barrel making company as a boy, learning the skills he put to use on the fotdella. The first prototype lay out flat on the ground (according to Jesse Cahn) and was rather like a grand piano but took up too much space. Jesse figured out a way to stand it up and that is what we see in the various pictures or videos that exist. There is an interesting but unsubstantiated story that Jesse initially built it as a coffin, for his grandson, who was supposedly dying of the flu. The kid recovered and Jesse turned it into a fotdella. Its a fun story but it can't really be likely, although in the famous picture of Jesse with the fotdella sitting next to him, the fotdella does look like a small coffin. Jesse made quite a few versions over the years, as it was quite a temperamental instrument and prone to breakdowns. This is supported by the photos and videos, which definitely show several different models. He would apparently cannibalize the broken model into a new one, reusing some of the parts. Most pictures seem to show six strings, although Robert 'One Man' Johnson remembers only five on the one Jesse had at a 1966 show, that Robert organized. The notes, as best as I can tell, were A, C, D, E, F and G (I'm not positive of the arrangement), the notes needed for "San Francisco Bay Blues" in the key of C. Jesse used piano wire for strings and clamped down the strings with nuts. The pedals were a bunch of piano keys (Jesse had to play barefoot with his big toe, as the notes were quite close together) that were wired to piano hammers that hit the strings, along with a damper that closed off the notes afterwards. Apparently the working mechanisms folded inside the body. I'm not too sure about this. It seems to have worked quite well on the recordings and Jesse truly sounds like a band of simple players (guitar excepted, quite fancy, at times!).
Robert 'One man' Johnson took this a step further, calling his a Foot Piano. I haven't studied his nearly as much, but it is a small full one octave chromatic scale (12 notes, piano arranged) instrument, again played barefoot and I'm guessing, its quiet acoustically, as it's quite small. I'll add more, as I gain the information (still waiting on recordings, for example).
My own (I have two) were built for me by Glenn Orr and they are both rather quiet, prone to problems, but definitely add to the sound. My first has eight strings with enough spread in the pedals to keep my shoe on. This is good, as it can be cool here in Victoria BC, sometimes, and I'm outdoors. I also switch to drums on some songs. The second, and one I currently use, has 12 strings (the extra four are recessed as a second row (and I seldom use them). I have mine tuned in fifths (or fourths, depending on which way you go), left to right - B,E,A,D,G,C,F,Bb. This allows for simple root five bass patterns with minmal foot movement. I can play most things in C, F or G and blues in D, A and E as well. Mine also have pieces right out of a piano that are removeable, with the hammers to hit the strings and dampers. When removed, I can fold the pedal board up against the strings, and the part that is most vulnerable (the hammers) is stored in a suitcase. Setup is quick, I just place the piano piece into the slots and possibly align a hammer or two. Takes seconds. My pedals push the hammers up to strike the strings, Jesse's pulled down. I use electric bass guitar strings with bass guitar tuning machines. I'll try to post some pictures here eventually.

4 comments:

  1. Pictures Pictures Pictures. Been wantint to make one of these for ages. I met a fellow from Canada, who made one, and he was ace at it. His name was Ryan Baer.

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  2. I just finished mine. I was inspired by videos of Ryan Baer, then started digging for more info, then I read about Jesse Fuller
    Mine is a C-C 13 strings, upright piano keys and hammers and strings, a metal frame to support them and a double bass body for amplification. Please send an e-mail to constantino.lobasso at gmail dot com and I will e-mail the picture and we might exchange ideas :) Greetings from Malta, Europe.

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  3. I'm going to build one too right here England.............been a busker with a high hat and big old base drum and had loads of fine times. This is the ultimate and has to be done/continued for the great man and people who entertain in the streets Bj

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  4. One of Fuller's fotdellas is at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. It is currently in storage, but his guitar is on display!

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